Chronicling the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians

This week, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled likens the Cambodian refugees that are featured in his book to the current exodus of Syrian refugees to show connections of race, gender, and activism.

After they survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by several years of confinement in international refugee camps, as many as 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived to the Bronx during the 1980s and 1990s.

Unsettled chronicles the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians, closely following one woman and her family for several years as they both survive and resist their literal insertion into the Bronx “hyperghetto.” The term hyperghetto refers to the postwar structural decomposition of U.S. cities resulting from massive and compulsory unemployment, public and private disinvestment, and the hyper-segregation and confinement of the city’s poorest Black and Latino residents. It serves as a prime example of how late-capitalism and racial democracy failed far too many in the post-Civil Rights era.

Unsettled_smI wrote Unsettled  to reveal how Cambodian refugee resettlement to the United States did not mark the closing of the refugee sojourn, followed by the opening of a new era of peace and stability for those who fled their homeland. I wanted to show the ways in which the refugees remained displaced, their sojourn unclosed, owing to the false promises of federal policy makers and the unscrupulous actions of their handlers. Politicians talked boldly about delivering refugees into the arms of the free market, but there was never a meaningful economic plan tethered to U.S. refugee resettlement policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offered only one-year of housing and job training assistance to refugees before they were cut loose, told to make it on their own. Meanwhile local resettlement agencies placed Cambodian refugees into ruinous housing units in some of the most economically marginalized neighborhoods in the Bronx. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have held some of the highest welfare and poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Among Cambodian refugees living in New York City, 42.8 percent were living in poverty, 23.9 percent were unemployed, and 62 percent had less than a high school education twenty years after their resettlement. Over the past three decades the vast majority of Bronx Cambodians have subsisted on welfare programs (or what remains of them).

Despite these harsh realities, many Bronx Cambodians engaged in activism. Unsettled explores how Bronx Cambodians resisted conditions of poverty, violence, and housing discrimination. It pays attention to the unique process whereby community members developed an analysis of their conditions, reached consensus on their collective needs, and sought meaningful political redress through community organizing and direct action. Today, such activism continues through the community’s younger generation—the children and grandchildren of refugees—led by organizations such as Mekong NYC. The organization’s work, as told by director and community organizer Chhaya Chhoum is featured in key chapters of the book.

As an urban ethnography, Unsettled offers a new kind of discussion on race and gender in the contemporary city, particularly as it relates to the welfare-dependent and jobless urban poor. In this way, it departs from the core thesis of seminal texts in the sociology of immigration that, in the decade following refugee resettlement, predicted the seamless transition of Cambodian refugees into American labor markets as well as their eventual assimilation into Anglo-American culture. It serves as a rebuttal to research that seeks to ideologically remove the refugee from the grips of a Black and Latino “underclass”—the sociological pejorative used to describe racialized inner city poverty. By examining the ongoing phenomena of refugee poverty—that is, the manner in which Cambodian refugees of the Bronx simultaneously subsist in the welfare state and the sweatshop economy—Unsettled complicates the fixed race and gender identities that structure common-sense notions of the city: the immigrant working-poor on the one hand, the domestic and welfare-dependent underclass on the other.

Finally, Unsettled poses questions that are relevant to the present moment. The current exodus of Syrian refugees represents the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Indeed, not since the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, have so many migrants from one region risked their lives, across land and sea, in search of asylum. Yet what happens after they are resettled to their new homelands? Have their struggles come to an end, or have they only just begun?

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